Archives For Words and Rabble

chair and two umberellas
Not long ago, a friend referred to the beauty and sturdiness of “unfettered friendship.” Though he did not explain what he meant, I hear this as a friendship where there are no strings attached, where one feels the freedom to be their full selves without fearing reprisal or shame, where there are no expectations someone has to meet in order to be fully welcomed. We take whatever the other has to give, and we are grateful. And we let the other off the hook for all those things we wish they could give us but are simply unable to provide right now.

This, as I understand it, is not a soft friendship — because if nothing is on the line for us, we are emboldened to be present without the anxieties that would make us always watch our words or say things just right or make sure we’ve got the intellectual artillery to back up whatever our opinion might be. We’re just ourselves, and we trust that our unfettered friends love us as ourselves – and that our friend will at times see us better than we see us, that their eyes may be clear when ours go foggy, their hope sturdy when ours wavers. Then, of course, when life turns, as it inevitably does, we’ll switch sides.

In these worn, leather-rich friendships, we can take a load off because both of us expect the other’s courage to rise up on our behalf. We expect that whenever we wander too far (and knowing what constitutes “too far” is a skill better left in the hands of gentle, unflustered souls), our friend will come find us, without recrimination or loading us up with heavy-handed garbage. Our friend will come alongside us and ask if we want to come back home. These friendships ground us in our life. They makes us truer women and men. These friendships allow us to breathe again.

 

image: “two umbrellas and a chair” by Manu Praba

I wonder how so many of us can sit in the same office suite with someone for decades, or sit on a pew in a church in the company of others for year after year, or sleep in a bed with one to whom we profess love, and yet know so little about their longings, their joys, their fears. How is it possible that we could live with ourselves for literally every day of our life and not know our own true desires and wounds and pleasures? How can we live as such strangers, to ourselves and to others, in this magnificent life we’ve been given?

Maybe we know more than we tell, only we have real difficulty knowing what to do with such intimate knowledge. It can be a fearful thing to carry tenderness and hope with you in such a snarling world. How do we move toward another when self-protective distance and a warped kind of self-reliance controls our narratives? How do we offer ourselves without apology but also without constantly scanning the room (or the comments section or the Twitter feed) to judge whether or not we’ve been accepted, whether or not we’ll have the grit to venture further down this uninhibited, self-forgetful path?

Willie Nelson refers to his life’s story as the history of his heart. I like that. Whenever I ask someone to tell me about their life, I’m wanting more than only the biological and geographical storyline. I’m also wanting to know how these places and triumphs and disasters, these loves and these disappointments, these plodding stretches and jolts of wild adrenaline, have formed that beautiful and unique fabric that makes them them.

Each of us are living the history of our heart. I hope we will have the courage to be faithful to this history, to see our life in all of its scuffed and lurching brilliance, to see others for the beauty of their unique history as well.

Jim Dollar

There is a kind of energy that flows out of the deep reservoirs of hope, faith and love; then there is a kind of energy that spews from the churning lava beds of fear, self-protection and anger. There is a posture of curiosity, good will and honor toward the other; then there is a posture of presumption, suspicion and damnation of the other. There is a yearning for healing and self-sacrifice; then there is a yearning for victory and personal (or tribal) triumph. There is a way of generosity; then there is a way of suspicion.

We can search for ammunition, or we can search for common ground. We can labor to discover the very best about another, or we can grasp after any conspiratorial hint of the very worst about another. We can live by narrow absolutism (all or nothing, my view of the facts is unassailable, any wise or noble or spiritual person must see it my way, etc) or we can grapple with the tensions of living in a complex world with complex questions and (sometimes) very befuddling answers. We can remain tenaciously committed to our shared human dignity, or we can succumb to our basest instincts and debase ourselves with a craven lust to win, no matter the cost.

There is a way of death, and there is a way of life. Call me a fool, but I believe (yes, even now) that goodness calls to us. Perhaps her voice is even stronger, more potent, distinct as she is amid the cacophonic braggadocio and screeching vexation. She’s a steady voice, humming a haunting, hopeful tune.

 

photography: Acadia coastline shot by Jim Dollar

I once heard Martin Marty explain how he believed we are arriving at a place where the theological divisions among Christians will no longer be classified primarily as liberal and conservative but rather as mean and not mean. While our religious convictions express our noble attempts to understand (and be faithful to) the triune God, any conviction that does not reflect the generous way of Jesus immediately reveals itself as a fraud. Sometimes it seems we’re overrun with religious blowhards (across the spectrum) whose every syllable drips with sarcasm, anger and scorn (not to mention ignorance, if not outright dishonesty, about the words and positions of those we despise). Thumping our Bible does not give us a pass on being a Grade A prig.

Note: “Speaking the truth in love” actually requires love. Even if I speak with the wisdom and authority of angels – if I don’t have love – then I’m doing nothing but clanging those cymbals. Have you ever heard someone (and it’s usually a child) just banging away on those blasted cymbals, like a hammer pounding your brain? Obnoxious, isn’t it?

I think Marty’s observation also makes sense for most every form of our public discourse. I wonder if our political divides may, if the current debasement holds, become less democrat/republican and more mean/not mean. Like many, I’ve come to loathe election season because it reveals the very worst about us as a people, our seeming inability to carry on a meaningful conversation about important ideals – a conversation exuding generosity rather than venom, a conversation eager to understand rather than merely score a kill, a conversation where we see the other as a beloved fellow human rather than an impersonal object or a despised enemy. We are so fearful, our patience so razor thin. It only takes a word, an image – and a hundred cat fights break out.

I’m an optimist, I suppose, but I believe that many of us will come to our senses. The antidote to meanness is, of course, the simplest thing: kindness. Kindness does not signal we’ve gone weak. Rather, when kindness takes root, it tells us we’ve abandoned our childish ways and let courage take root. We’ve learned we have no need to vilify another. We stand in the truth we understand, and we seek to understand more (and who knows how this will change us?). We’ve learned that meanness will only ruin us. We know now that if we fight savagely for some ideal, then even if we achieve what we claw after, there will be nothing left worth having.

shenandoah.06.22.16

Next to my desk, I have a shelf of books intended for the nourishment of my soul. On this shelf sits (among others) the Book of Common Prayer, Celtic Daily Prayer, Working the Angles, Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry and Hiking Shenandoah National Park: A Falcon Guide. For me, poetry and prayer and long walks in the woods are all three ways of doing a very similar thing. My jaunts in the Blue Ridge mountains, immersed among pignut hickory and shagbark oaks, asters and goldenrods, teach me the same language Scripture leads me toward: gratitude, wonder and restfulness. The Orthodox speak of the book of Scripture accompanied by the book of nature. This makes sense to me.

Last week, I went for a long walk in the Shenandoah. I started the trek feeling a heaviness, the weight of many questions. But true to form, over the 9 miles or so, the weight trickled off my shoulders, a lightness returned. I took a couple detours to examine flora, beautiful luxuries that exist carefree knowing only their need to bask in the shade and sunshine, their single task to emanate beauty. As I neared a creek I needed to ford, I looked up to find a black bear on the other side, perhaps 15 yards away. There are roughly 800 bears in the park, but I had yet to meet one in a standoff. She intended to cross my direction, and I intend to cross hers. I was happy to let her win, but she inched down the brook, munching leaves as she rambled. I inched up the brook, watching my escape route with vigilance. She really was a marvel.

Image quality low due to Photograph fear high

Image quality low due to photographer fear high

Arriving at my destination, I drank crisp, cold water from my Hydro Flask, crunched on my Pink Lady apple and my chili lime cashews. I stretched out my legs and read Barry Lopez reject (through one of his protagonists) “the assertion, promoted today by success-mongering bull terriers in business, in government, in religion, that humans are goal-seeking animals.” Rather, Lopez affirmed, “we believe [humans] are creatures in search of proportion in life, a pattern of grace. It is balance and beauty we believe people want, not triumph.” I read these words, and I uttered an amen. I’m nearly certain one of the birches waved its green leaves in agreement.

I strolled back to my car, a heart filled yet again. Switching out my Keens for breezy sandals (a sweet moment, as any hiker will attest), I hopped into my truck and turned the engine. As I pulled onto the road and turned up the radio, NPR voices and the crackle of static greeted me. At that elevation and at that distance from any city, I was picking up two NPR broadcasts, interlacing. Two shows on two different topics, moving in and out like waves back and forth along the shore. I heard only snippets from each conversation, not enough even to really follow the topic. However, between the two separate shows talking to two separate panel of guests and apparently interacting with two very different themes, I heard – within only 90 seconds – the word anxiety spoken 5 times. I had only dipped my toe back into the “real world” before I was again battered by fear, by hand-wringing, by high-pitched rhetoric.

So I remembered that bear ambling over the creek, with me watching my backside. I remembered those lacy white wildflowers that forced me to stop and gawk. I remembered Lopez’s conviction of our deep longing for a pattern of grace. I pointed home, and I ignored the enticement to drink in all the fear.

My grandfather Clifford Oden was a wise and practical man. A mathematics teacher, he worked the numbers and the angles, and I’m told he was the first full-time professor at LeTourneau University. Grandpa Oden tackled even the most benign problems with the methodical eye of a chess master, one slow move at a time. I loved going into his shop in their standalone garage, eyeing all the tools hung in neat rows, the lines of Gerber baby food jars each filled (and labeled, by type and size) with wood screws, metal screws, hex bolts, cap bolts (and nuts for each) round head nails, finish nails, masonry nails.

However, grandpa was not much for aesthetics. He wanted to get the job done properly and efficiently. Beauty never factored into the equation. When I became old enough to take on mowing his yard, he sat me down at the dining room table and pulled out a yellow legal pad. Grandpa sketched his back yard, calculating before my eyes the square feet of the landscape, translating his figures into steps taken pushing the Sears Craftsman mower. Next he drew a rectangle, demonstrating how efficient it was to mow in a box shape rather than in rows back and forth. “You’ll save hundreds of steps,” grandpa said, tapping his pencil on the pad for emphasis.

Recently, I mowed our new yard at our old cottage for the first time. It’s a backyard laid out by whimsy. We have a maple tree, a poplar, boxwoods run wild, multiple garden beds with ivy and bee balm and ferns of every sort. It’s lovely, but it’s a mower’s nightmare, with all the nooks and crannies. I thought about my grandpa while I mowed in a wide, circular motion, how proud he’d be to see me save energy and shave minutes off the job.

The only problem was, as I cut, everything seemed all wrong. I felt as though I were imposing something onto this stretch of ground. The grass was now short, but there was no symmetry, no elegance. On my second mow, I asked grandpa’s forgiveness and slowly, tediously cut in vertical rows, back and forth, back and forth. It felt like heresy. But when I was done, there was a beauty there that perhaps only a yard man could appreciate.

Sometimes we should save time or money or energy. But sometimes we should stand still and watch for the slope of a yard, the slant of a life, the near imperceptible aches of the heart. There are so many good, good things that refuse to be measured in terms of efficiency, speed or accomplishment. We best pay extra close attention to those. I wonder if we may be close to loosing too many of them.

Dear John,

You are so right. On days like these, we need a friend. So, here I am, writing you back right away. Last evening, I heard stories of the police investigators making their way through the pile of carnage and how they kept having to force themselves to tune out all the telephones ringing from all the bodies. Friends desperately hoping someone on the other end would pick up. Family members refusing to believe the worst. Such loneliness and crushing sorrow. They weren’t able to talk to those they loved. I wish I could do something.

Friday, you know, will be the 1 year anniversary of the shooting at Mother Emanuel in Charleston. You remember how it felt when you and I stood on Calhoun St. in front of the memorial at the church, the deep sadness, wondering if we’ve all just gone mad? And now, a year later here we are again. One group gunned down because of hate. Another group gunned down because of hate. Have we? Have we just gone mad?

I appreciate very much Annie’s challenge to write words that will not enrage by their triviality. Yesterday, a friend dropped by to see our house, and her phone alarm went off at 6:00 p.m. It was a reminder about the moment of silence for the victims in Orlando. We all sat there, still. Those 60 seconds were the truest response I had all day. I wish we could have sat there quiet together.

 

Your Friend,
Winn

moonlight row vision

One of the profound gifts discovered amid true friendship is the ability to see and be seen, to see the truth of who we are – past the frivolous fascinations, beyond our sabotaging nitwittedness, through the seasons of lethargy, estrangement or basic foolishness. Once, when I felt trapped in an undercurrent of self-disgust, Miska looked at me, clear-eyed and without even a hint of shame or distance. “Winn, you’re a better man than that.”

I believed her. For one, Miska’s proven entirely incapable of blowing BS, even if merely to make someone feel better. Miska’s a kind, generous soul, but she adheres to the school of straightforward love — Miska believes truth heals more than any lie ever could. Even more, though, I’ve learned to trust that Miska does actually see the truth, that she sees me (at least most of me). I believe Miska would say that I see her too, that love and fidelity through the long labor of love has trained me to see the truer places in her (at least most of them).

I also have a handful of friends, companions who, in various ways, see one another truly. This is one of the signs of a sturdy, weathered friendship: the capacity, as well as the commitment, to catch sight of the deep goodness in another – and to cling to that goodness even when it costs us to hold tight. I agree with the hopeful axiom Helmut Thielicke insists upon: “If there is one rule that is given to us by the command to love our neighbor, it is that we must always judge a person by his optimum and not by his failures.” We see with generosity. We see beyond the bluster or the isolation. We see the truth.

 

image: Massimo Valiani

viewA little over a week ago, we sold couches and beds and our ping pong table. We packed our books (so many books) in cardboard boxes and loaded them, along with our furniture and our clothes and our dog Daisy, for a short jaunt from Brookwood Dr. to Warren Lane. For eight years, Brookwood was our place of laughter and chaos, delight and weariness. It was the place where we lived – and I take that word seriously.

Miska asked me what I’d miss most about our house, and the answer was easy. Of course, what I will miss most is the memories attached to this specific place: the slope that ran behind our row of townhouses where the boys and I tossed the football, the pencil marks on the doorframe marking Wyatt and Seth’s rise to manhood and that spectacular view of Carter’s Mountain. I loved those mornings when misty clouds would roll over Carter’s, like a ghost flowing toward the valley. In the evenings, Miska and I would sit on the front porch with cups of tea in hand, watching the blueish-orange light fade over the ridge. “Over the past few years,” I told Miska, “this mountain has sustained me.” I didn’t know the depth of this truth, the gratitude I felt, until I spoke the words.

I am eager for our cottage on Warren Lane, eager for the ways these old bones and the land that surrounds them will, in new ways, sustain me and those I love. However, it seems important to pause, to say thank you. After our old house was empty, we went by one last time to say farewell. I went slowly through each room. I paused, remembering smiles and sorrows and so much hope. I remembered boys who were little, days that are gone now. In our bedroom where Miska and I shared so much, I had tears. I am grateful.

It requires no imagination whatsoever, nor an ounce of courage, to surrender hope. Anybody can play the cynic’s card. Nihilism may masquerade as some noble act of intellectual integrity, but let’s be honest – you can get there easily enough by just dousing every flame and then slinking into that dark hole from which you never emerge. When we surrender our life, it’s often because of that gutsy, valiant effort: inertia. Like Wendell says, “The word inevitable is for cowards.”

Anybody can bury their disappointment or pain in a cloud of overwrought ambiguity. Anybody can cut joy at the knees. Anybody can lay down and assume everything’s meaningless, purposeless, empty.

I want to demonstrate more mettle than this. I want to stare down all the confusion (and there’s much), all the failures and the impossibilities (and there’s more than a few), all the grief and sorrow. I want to see these things, embrace them even, and then summon things truer, deeper – maybe things more reckless. I want to believe in what is good, solid and just. I want to abandon the coward’s way.